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Stanford team uses brain scans to forecast development of kids’ math skills

multiplication-table-2Back in the third grade, I did not like math. It was boring! It was hard! Why did I have to memorize the times tables, anyway?

Did this mean I would have trouble with math for the rest of my life, or would I get over my eight-year-old's funk and end up being good at it? At the time, there was no way to know. But now, in a longitudinal study published today in The Journal of Neuroscience, a team of Stanford researchers show that scans of third graders' brains forecast which children will eventually do well in math and which of them will continue to struggle.

The resting MRI scans collected in the study evaluated the brain's structure and connectivity between different brain regions in 43 eight-year-olds of normal intelligence. The researchers also gave the children several standardized tests outside the scanner. They then re-tested the kids' math skills regularly for the next six years.

The brain scans were better than standard IQ, math or other tests at predicting how the children's math skills would develop. Larger volume and greater connectedness of specific brain regions at age eight was linked to better math skills down the road. From our press release:

“A long-term goal of this research is to identify children who might benefit most from targeted math intervention at an early age,” said senior author Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “Mathematical skills are crucial in our increasingly technological society, and our new data show which brain features forecast future growth in math abilities.”

In addition to identifying at-risk kids, the scans may help scientists design better ways to help them. Because the new work gives a baseline understanding of brain features in children with normal math skills, it may help guide efforts to strengthen the brains of kids with math difficulties. The researchers, who are now exploring how math tutoring changes the brain, encourage parents and teachers not to give up on children who have a hard time with math:

“Just because a child is currently struggling doesn’t necessarily mean he or she will be a poor learner in the future,” said [Tanya] Evans, [PhD, first author of the new study].

As for me, math never became my favorite subject. But I did eventually shake my early aversion to it. Since my job requires me to understand a range of mathematical concepts, I'm grateful — and I hope the new work being done at Stanford will allow today's struggling third-graders to someday say the same.

Previously: A not so fearful symmetry: Applying neuroscience findings to teaching math, Peering into the brain to predict kids' responses to math tutoring and New research tracks "math anxiety" in the brain
Photo by jmawork

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